SCHOOL BOARD Q&A: Joseph Toepke discusses district planning, supporting students

Thursday, March 20, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:12 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 20, 2014

Editor's note: This is the third of four articles in which Columbia School Board candidates answer questions about their goals if elected and issues facing the district. Paul Cushing's responses were published online Tuesday, and Jonathan Sessions' responses were published online Wednesday. Helen Wade's responses are being published online Friday.

COLUMBIA — Joseph Toepke is one of four candidates for three positions on the Columbia School Board. The general municipal election will be held April 8.

Toepke works for the Missouri National Guard. His wife, Amanda Toepke, teaches at Smithton Middle School. Toepke's oldest daughter had a bad experience with bullying about five years ago, so he and his wife withdrew their two daughters from Columbia Public Schools and enrolled them in private school.

The Missourian asked each candidate several questions about their goals if elected and about issues the district faces. Their responses were collected via email. The following are excerpts of Toepke's responses.

What experiences or characteristics would serve you well as a board member?

I have been in the military service for 22 years, 18 years as an officer. I have been deployed three separate times into harsh environments where decisions had life and death consequences. I have extensive experience as a commander, demonstrating successful leadership and the ability to make and follow through on my decisions.

As a staff officer, I spent many years conducting short, long range, and strategic planning in a variety of peaceful and hostile conditions. I learned to work as part of a team to develop consensus moving forward. I have also been the human resources manager for over 1,200 people and know how to bring out the best in those with whom I work.

My wife is a teacher at Smithton Middle School, so I am very aware of the challenges that our teachers face every day. I believe that my career experience could help me make policy changes that could help alleviate some of these challenges. I have two daughters who have attended Mill Creek (Elementary School), Gentry (Middle School), and West (Middle School, formerly a junior high school). My oldest daughter currently attends the Columbia Area Career Center. Their educational experiences have given me insights into issues facing students today.

What are your short-term goals if elected?

  1. I would like to see more students be offered the AVID course. It shows very promising results and I believe could help a lot more students than it is currently programmed for. (AVID, an acronym for Advanced Via Individual Determination, is a program that strives to close the academic achievement gap.)
  2. I would like to see feedback from all programs and gauge if they are really worth the investments that CPS taxpayers (are) making. We should ask, “Are there any efficiencies that can be gained from combining programs?” We should work to gain the public’s trust that the resources really are being wisely spent.
  3. Look at the near term plans for growth and how it is currently sourced against the budget.
  4. I would like to be involved with looking at the policy that deals with behaviors in the classroom. Part of the reason our students are seeing a decline in performance is teachers who have to spend precious class time dealing with behaviors instead of helping students understand the material. 

What are your long-term goals if elected?

Columbia is still growing, and we need to have the dirt moving for new schools now and not wait for terrible overcrowding and painful boundary changes before starting that process.

I would like to see if there is a better way to partner the Chamber of Commerce, Home Builders Association, planning committees (city and county) with CPS to plan more strategically for the next generation of schools. This would also lend more predictability when it comes to both requesting resources from the taxpayers and confidence that a home built in a certain area will not have parents dropping off grade school students at two different elementary schools, in the future.

The district's 10-year Facility and Bond Plan is to build five schools to address overcrowding and community growth. At the same time, a district goal has been to get rid of trailer classrooms by 2020. What do you think the district should do to address overcrowding in the short term? What about in the long term?

I support the current initiatives to replace trailers with permanent facilities. I believe the lesson learned is that better planning could have prevented many of today’s problems. This would give more predictability to everyone in the process. The way forward is not repeating the past.

The district has also started discussions on the possibility of establishing a community school that would partner a new school with local agencies to provide students in at-risk situations access to academic, health and social development resources. Also in the works is the development of a nature-based school that would be located at Rock Bridge State Park. What do you think of alternative schools such as a community school and the nature-based school?

As long as there is sufficient interest by students, parents and taxpayers to justify the resources allocated, I support those initiatives. I believe in helping all of our students achieve their maximum potential by using innovative ideas. I strongly believe that providing additional resources for basic access to services can be a great benefit to students at risk. 

That being said, I will not support initiatives that are unable to show substantial results of progress, that do not maintain parental or community support, that degrade core subject mastery, that lack a good “return on investment,” or that fail to provide the fundamentals of school safety and accessibility to all students.

The district is asking voters to approve a 4-cent increase to the debt service portion of the property tax levy and a $50 million bond issue. The debt service levy increase would fund expenses such as construction, building improvements and technology. The $50 million bond issue is the third of six school bond issues planned through 2020. The funds would be used to build new schools and improve existing buildings. Do you support these ballot proposals and why?

I emphatically support these requests and hope that all voters who see my responses will too. Education and preparing our young people is the key to our country’s future. These young people are tomorrow’s inventors, doctors, teachers, mechanics, leaders and business owners. The rest of us will depend on them to make this country a better place. For them to succeed, we owe it to both the students and ourselves to give them a world-class education and support every opportunity (within fiscal reality) to be everything they can be. I firmly support Dr. (Chris) Belcher and the changes that he has made during his tenure towards this goal.

Is there a particular issue in the district that hasn't been addressed? If so, what is it and why do you care about it?

I want to discuss more about the belief that all our children are exceptional and each is capable to be the best human being possible. The question now being asked is, "What is CPS doing to close the achievement gap?" I think the question itself is fundamentally flawed. Instead of asking about "the gap," we should be asking if "we" are doing everything we can to provide "ALL" students with the best opportunities and educational experience possible.

Clearly each student has different educational and supportive needs. Answering the question “What else can we do to provide every student the chance to achieve?” will solve the flawed question.

Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.

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